48 years on since the first-ever Test series, Chepauk gets ready to host India women

Former India all-rounder Kulkarni recalls the experiences of the debut series against West Indies from 1976
On June 28, the iconic venue will witness it all again when India and South Africa lock horns in the longest format.
On June 28, the iconic venue will witness it all again when India and South Africa lock horns in the longest format.Photo | PTI

CHENNAI: "OH! It was some 48 years ago. Let's see how much I remember," laughs Shubhangi Kulkarni.

She is right. It has been 48 long years since the Indian women's team officially played a Test match against West Indies. It has been 48 years since Chennai's beloved Chepauk witnessed a women's Test match.

On Friday, the wait will end as the iconic venue will witness it all again when India and South Africa lock horns in the longest format.

Kulkarni, who made her debut in 1976 against West Indies in Bengaluru, remembers it all too well. Even though it was India's official Test debut, it did not feel like one for the playing XI.

"There were a few unofficial matches before we officially played a Test against the West Indies. I don’t remember ever getting a Test cap from someone. So technically, when we played against the West Indies, all of us made our debuts. In Bengaluru, that was the first international Test match we played as such. It was new for all of us, to be honest," the former India all-rounder told this daily.

With the glory of playing a Test ahead of her, there were mixed emotions leading up to the Test. Kulkarni had one more reason to be excited but nervous because she had made a big decision leading into the series. She had changed her bowling to suit the team's needs.

"When you are playing your first match for India, obviously, you are excited. It’s a mix of nervousness and excitement I would say. When I started playing, I used to bowl medium pace and then I converted myself to leg spin. With that series against the West Indies, it was my first experience of bowling leg spin in the match. Just before that series, we had a coaching camp and there I practised my leg spin. I knew it was not easy to face leg spin bowling because there were not many leg spinners in the women’s game at that time. Myself, Diana Edulji and Sharmila Chakravarthy were the spinners for India. I was keen to try it out against the West Indies. And sure enough, they found it difficult to face."

It really worked for Kulkarni and India as she ended up taking five wickets in the first innings at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. 

At the end of the day, it was adaptation at its best. Kulkarni wanted to bowl and leg spin was the only way she thought she could bowl more and more.

"We already had too many medium pacers in the squad. Whereas there were no leg spinners at that time. My bowling was something different and it gave me an opportunity to bowl. If I was a medium pacer, I wouldn’t have got that opportunity to bowl. There were better medium pacers than me like Shantha Rangaswamy and Runa Basu. So I wouldn’t have had a chance to bowl if I was a medium pacer. So it was absolutely satisfying," Kulkarni said.

Once the series shifted to Chennai after a draw in Bengaluru, the talk was about Chennai pitch helping the spinners out. However, none of the players had the experience of playing at the ground as such."From common knowledge, we knew the Chennai wicket was supposed to assist spinners. I am not sure if our teammates from Chennai got the opportunity to play at Chepauk because we used to play on mat wickets. Only if there was any big series, we used to play at such big venues. I think the judgment of how the wicket will work only came once we started playing. We had to figure it out by ourselves."

The continuous rain in the city  during the November of 1976 did dampen the mood in the camp, but Kulkarni had a bigger worry in the form of a thumb injury. While her entire team and opposition were waiting for the rain to stop, she had to be in the hospital and could not take part in the match. "While batting in Chennai, I got hit by a ball and I had to go to the hospital because my right-hand thumb's nail was hit badly. I could not play in the next Test after Chennai because of the injury because I could not even grip the ball. I scored 14 runs at Chepauk and got out, I was not able to play in the rest of the match.

"I could not play the third Test of the series in Delhi. When we went to Patna for the fourth Test, I took seven wickets in the match we won."

The Test match win in Patna was India's first-ever in the format and Kulkarni is certainly proud of that win. In that series, Kulkarni topped the wickets chart with 23 wickets across six innings.

While Kulkarni later went on to captain India in Tests, she praised her first captain, Shantha, for paving the way. "Shantha always led from the front. She had immense confidence in her teammates. I remember, at that time, the Indian men’s team had a few good spinners and they were dependent on the spinners. I have a feeling Shantha picked it up from there and used it when we played. The backing we had from her motivated us on the field to do better."

Women's cricket in India today is standing on the solid foundation laid by the likes of Rangaswamy and Kulkarni. Harmanpreet Kaur's side has another opportunity to consolidate that legacy in Chennai.

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The New Indian Express